On a hot Algerian day in 1925, a local elder went to the home of one of his neighbors and told him that his land was being claimed by a colonial French diplomat. He and his family would have to find somewhere else to live. Twenty years later, on the day France celebrated the end of World War II, the Algerians took to the streets to march for their own desired independence. Retaliation left the old man who lost his land dead, and his second son was sent to jail. This is the way revolutions begin.
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi), a new film by writer/director Rachid Bouchareb, is the story of the three children who lost their home that day in '25, and what they did following the tragedy in '45. The story picks up in 1955. The oldest brother, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), is a soldier in the French army fighting a losing war in Vietnam. The youngest, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), is making his way the best he can to support their mother (Chafia Boudraa), but the heat is still on all over their village, especially after he exacts a little personal revenge. Saïd decides to take his mother and go to Paris to be near the jail where Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) has spent the last decade.
Mother and son move into a shantytown that has sprung up near Paris. There, immigrants who work for the Renault factory struggle in poverty. Saïd is not having any of that. He quickly seeks out the criminal element and starts pimping in the Pigalle district, breaking his mother's heart in the process. By the time Messaoud returns from the war, little brother is making a name for himself. By the time Abdelkader is set free, Saïd is a full-on gangster. Not even the marriage of Messaoud to a local girl can bring the family back together in full.
Abdelkader, on the other hand, is still married to the cause, and he has joined the radical Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN. He recruits Messaoud to be his muscle man as he spearheads a mission to bring terrorism home to France. Why keep fighting them in Algiers when it will hurt the French much more to strike on their own turf? Saïd goes along as much as he has to, using the FLN to front his buying into an Arab-themed cabaret and eventually trying to get legitimate by becoming a boxing promoter. His idea to have an Algerian champion take the French title ruffles feathers, particularly amongst his own people. The cause has no room for nuance. Only might is right.
The story that unfolds through Outside the Law is a familiar one. One brother is dedicated to his beliefs and nothing else, another just wants to get ahead, and the other brother is caught in the middle. Messaoud is the most interesting character, because he is the only one who is truly conflicted. He saw fighting in Vietnam and spent time in a prison camp, and he's got the scars to prove it. Abdelkader doesn't have the stomach for killing, so he relies on his bigger brother--literally bigger, Roschdy Zem is huge--to do the dirty work, despite the toll it takes on him. Zem gets one particularly chewy scene where he pours out his heart to his mother. His sacrifice is too much. His son is growing up without his father, and the family man Messaoud hoped to be is drowning in blood.
Bouchareb constructs his movie in a rather straightforward manner. He follows the struggle from 1955 to the Algerian independence of 1962, using the brothers' various endeavors to guide him. He jumps over passages of time when it is necessary, and we tend to see more of the planning and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks than the events themselves. Eventually, an Algerian defector in the police force, Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan), forms a covert counterterrorism group, the Red Hand, and Outside the Law becomes a little like The Untouchables: the good guys will act like the bad guys in order to take those bad guys down.
The period detail in Outside the Law is very good. The men dress like old-school gangsters, and the backrooms and dark alleys where they make their plans are suitably smoky and dank. Despite the politics, this is a lot like watching boys play cops and robbers, with one kid being on top one day, another on top the next. Bouchareb does a good job with it, and he manages to keep the divergent plotlines moving in the right directions so they sync up when it's important, but there is a lingering feeling that we have seen all this stuff before. That would be fine if the movie somehow distinguished itself in another way. The drama of the three brothers is compelling, but predictable. You can likely guess how each of them redeems himself. Outside the Law doesn't even have the out that it's based on a true story; it is just what it is.
Still, what it is isn't too bad. If these are clothes we've worn before, we've worn them for a reason. The actors are all very good, and the storytelling is solid. It may not be one of the great films of recent memory, but Outside the Law is a very good one, satisfying in its own way. It's serious minded genre work with a setting that isn't very common, which helps it overcome all the things that are.